July 19, 2024

Contrail goes out in blaze of Japan Cup glory

Champion Contrail lived up to billing in his Japan Cup finale (Copyright Japan Racing Association)

Japanese star Contrail had one last chance to bolster his legacy in Sunday’s $6.1 million Japan Cup (G1), and the 3-5 favorite seized it to conclude his racing career in a blaze of glory. A champion at two and three, when unbeaten through the 2020 Triple Crown, Contrail retires to stud as the successor to his late, great sire, Deep Impact.

Trainer Yoshito Yahagi’s thoughts were already turning to that promising future. After masterminding Japan’s first Breeders’ Cup victories three weeks ago, and now winning his first Japan Cup, Yahagi is looking ahead to an elusive Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (G1) trophy.

“Wouldn’t it be wonderful to win the Arc with an offspring of his someday?”

Contrail at one stage had fueled speculation about his own Arc possibilities. Yahagi nipped that in the bud, however, by outlining a domestic fall campaign.

Although a win machine earlier in his career, Shinji Maeda’s homebred entered the Japan Cup riding a three-race losing streak. Runner-up to the sublime Almond Eye in last year’s running, Contrail had encountered adverse circumstances in his only two starts of 2021. He was third on unsuitably yielding going in the Apr. 4 Osaka Hai (G1) at Hanshin, and caused his own bad luck in the Oct. 31 Tenno Sho Autumn (G1), when playing up in the gate and ending up second.

Yet Contrail still remained the one to beat at Tokyo Sunday. His connections, and fans the world over, hoped that the gifted colt would perform up to his best. He rose to the occasion, leaving regular rider Yuichi Fukunaga overcome with emotion after his first Japan Cup win.  

“The colt had issues before his debut,” Fukunaga said, “so there were always concerns about his form, but I am so proud of how he proved himself today—I’m overwhelmed. All I did today was believe in him. He broke well and everything went just perfectly.”

Striding in good order from post 2, Contrail settled at about the midpoint of the 18-horse field in the early going, which became a tale of two races. Aristoteles served up the first plot twist by going to the lead, while sometime pace player Kiseki was dead last.

As Aristoteles dictated a modest tempo of :24.2 and :49.6 on the good-to-firm turf, that wasn’t fast enough for Kiseki, who changed the complexion of the race down the backstretch. Passing the entire field to take command and open up by daylight, Kiseki injected pace into the second half with a series of furlongs in :11 and change. His gambit fizzled by midstretch.

The 6-1 Authority, who had sat handy in the main body of the field, was the first to roll past the tiring Kiseki. But Shahryar, the 2.70-1 second choice, was rallying into contention. More ominously, Contrail had shifted out into the clear and cruised up. As Authority kept on resolutely, Shahryar lugged in and stalled his momentum, and Contrail took off.

Turning on the afterburners, Contrail zoomed clear of Authority to win handily by two lengths. The champion clocked his last 600 meters (about three furlongs) in a field-best :33.7 to finish about 1 1/2 miles in 2:24.7.

Authority was second by 1 1/2 lengths from Shahryar, with Sanrei Pocket checking in fourth. French-based mare Grand Glory finished strongly for fifth, posting the joint second-fastest rally in :34.2. Sophomore filly Uberleben equaled that closing sectional to take sixth. Next came Shadow Diva; the Aidan O’Brien-trained Japan, who is reportedly off to stud in Germany; Aristoteles; Kiseki; Broome, O’Brien’s better-fancied runner who got himself out of position with a slow start; You Can Smile; Mozu Bello; Makahiki; Lord My Way; Muito Obrigado; Windjammer; and Wagnerian.

Contrail compiled a record of 11-8-2-1. A perfect 3-for-3 as the champion juvenile of 2019, the dark bay won a newcomers’ event at Hanshin, the about 1 1/8-mile Tokyo Sports Hai Nisai (G3) in a record 1:44.5, and the Hopeful (G1). Contrail continued his streak through last year’s Satsuki Sho (Japanese 2000 Guineas) (G1), Tokyo Yushun (Japanese Derby) (G1), his fall tightener in the Kobe Shimbun Hai (G2), and the Triple Crown-clinching Kikuka Sho (Japanese St. Leger) (G1). His first loss came in the 2020 Japan Cup, so his victory here paid tribute to his conqueror, Almond Eye.

“All I have now is mixed feelings of relief and lonesomeness,” Yahagi said. “In the colt’s latest start (the Tenno Sho Autumn), he broke poorly so I told him, while he was walking in the paddock earlier, to stay calm at the start. It worried me a bit since the pace was slow and he wasn’t in that good a position, but we had tuned him up to perfection and the colt gave us all he had in the straight.

“I have to admit I was under a lot of pressure during the two years he was at my stable,” his trainer added, “but I think it has helped me in becoming more mature, and I can’t thank him enough.”

Fukunaga also put Contrail’s success in context.

“He has given me every jockey’s dream, and I am utterly grateful,” Fukunaga said. “The colt shone a bright light over a gloomy year due to the pandemic last season. I’m relieved that we can send him off to his next career with this victory.”

Feted with a retirement ceremony at the racecourse later on Sunday, Contrail will commence that new career at Shadai Stallion Station.